When I was a boy and my father and I were avid followers of NASA and the space agency’s progress to the moon, I learned that in every command capsule there was a rather conspicuous red button to push if the mission should need to be aborted on the launch pad. Less than a decade after this, the Supreme court majority decision in Roe versus Wade established a woman’s legal right to have an abortion, although no red button was forthcoming. In the seventies we had too many discussions and not enough argument about a woman’s right to choose an abortion, a right I did not oppose, a right she had always had in spite of legislation to the contrary. I would eventually come to the position that it is not the law that gives a woman the right to choose, that that right exists in spite of the law. What the law does or can do is provide legal sanction, thus hopefully legal protection, thus a loosening of the grip that social conventions might impulsively tighten against her.
To choose to end a pregnancy has always been a dilemma, and after Roe versus Wade the number of rocks and hard places did not quickly lessen. If a woman had come to the point where she had to make a choice, though, at least after Roe versus Wade, she was not a criminal for choosing one way, and was expressing free-will if she should choose the other. To have a baby or not to have a baby . . . the Right to choose also frees the woman who wants to have a baby. Pro-choice is not only a position for a woman who wants to have an abortion. The legally sanctioned right to choose an abortion honors, fore-mostly, a woman’s right to choose, which may be to have the baby, as it is also to have an abortion. Having a baby became more about a woman’s choice than her obligation as a breeder after Roe versus Wade.
All women choose between having a child and aborting the pregnancy when the choice arises to have a baby or not, although not quite as easily or safely as missions to space. There have always been ways to induce miscarriage, some of them frightening and almost concentration camp like in manner, others just dangerous, but choice is always elemental. The idea that an induced “miscarriage” has not always been an option is a mistake. The difference in a legally sanctioned abortion is the matter of safety. It is the difference between having a parachute and not having a parachute when the plane is going down in flames. Of course, this is not practical in contemporary commercial air travel, but fighter pilots still have parachutes and ejector seats to save their lives. This is the idea. Presumably, under sanction of the law, a woman now has the option to safely end her pregnancy, where before she did not. Our medical establishment assures us of the safety involved, yet more women die annually from medical malpractice than from breast cancer. This is another essay, perhaps soon to follow, one addressing the persistent second class status for the still second sex.
Hamlet’s dilemma is to be or not to be, which is also any woman’s who has to decide if she is going to carry her pregnancy to term or not and thus choose to terminate it. Hamlet did not raise the issue of having a parachute or not having a parachute because there were no parachutes. There were the equivalents of life boats in the sailing of the time. When a woman wants to have a baby, tries to have a baby, gets pregnant and has no apparent dilemma before her, she has chosen not to abort. To bail out or not to bail out is always a question. When the plane’s going down in flames, it would be great if a parachute were available. It’s sensible; it’s rational; it’s reasonable to expect our culture, our civilization, to support a woman’s inalienable right to choose.
When I was an undergraduate for the first time, there was an argument in college that went as follows: You can’t tell me that a fifteen year old girl is ready, emotionally or psychologically, to have a baby; that it might not be a stress in these ways too much for her to handle. Pregnancy was traumatic. I understood this argument. I too felt the emotional power behind it. I was sensitive to it, or so I assumed; perhaps I should say I was not insensitive to it. The former and latter, sensitive and not insensitive are not the same thing. Nonetheless, a pregnancy for a fifteen year old girl in any middle class home or community would be traumatic, perhaps as much, if not more, for her parents. I am not so sure it would be equally devastating for girls in other communities, or from other economic classes, but let us assume that bourgeois mentality and morality have pervaded, which is not to say that ethics and morality (and they are not synonyms) only exist among those of the American middle class. I am sure there are a plethora of responses from parents or elders of any back ground, some of them sane and reasonable and others quite irrational and frightening.
If there were no boy to marry, this would pose a problem for a girl who was of any religious or cultural tradition, or economic or educational status, for how far have we come in this world from the condition of women in society since Ms. Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Women? The fact that any girl who was accepted to Harvard, let us say, and who also became pregnant at 18 would be a shock for any family is easy to understand; the presumption that any girl accepted to Harvard as an undergraduate might make an acceptable candidate to any one of a number of top tier PhD programs in whatever field she was to choose would increase the anxiety. What is her pregnancy at 18 going to do to any of her family’s imagined prospects, if they were in fact pinning their hopes of future advancement on the daughter graduating from Harvard, whether fairly or unfairly? No one is going to assume initially that the girl can easily, or if at all, complete her education once pregnant. I am not going to argue against the merits of the perception, only present that the perception exists. For some it would be horrible.
If there were a boy to marry and marriage ensued, I presume any parents who would have been shocked ethically or morally or in their sense of propriety would suffer a lesser shock. The matrimony that might ensue could soothe their previous embarrassment, but any parents with aspirations of the daughter’s self-reliance or career advancement as a result of her advanced education beyond the B.A. would not be assuaged by the baby having a father present. I am not herein considering the psychopathic, whereby a woman’s, or a girl’s, life or limb is in jeopardy, from those who say they love her when she becomes pregnant without marriage. Emotional trauma correspondent to the level of ostracising a girl would endure from her community would have to be measured separately. I make no assumptions for how progressive all of us are; history is anything but progressive.
We do have to see that if the girl were of a bourgeois family–and by this I mean an upper or mid level middle class family, where one or both of the parents are university educated, perhaps where both or at least one has a post-graduate degree–the expectations would be for her to go to college, and not just college, but as aforementioned, graduate school. A pregnancy, even if there were a boy to marry, would be an impediment to her going to college and then to graduate school, at least in some minds. Of course, the economic aspirations of the girl’s family would be stunted, cut off; and this might be especially frightening to a family with bourgeois aspirations who are not yet bourgeois, or bourgeois by proxy through the social advancement of the daughter, who is now “with child.” Ah! With child. No embryo can be called a child if the argument sides with pro choice against con, can it? Yes, it.
Under any of the aforementioned circumstances, medically induced miscarriage would certainly be less traumatic, or as many of the so called middle class arguments in favor of pro choice would go. I am not as certain as some of these who support this line of reasoning. I do not assume the only traumatic thing for a woman in this predicament is to have a baby she does not want. Even when choosing an abortion under the best of pro-choice circumstances, there is loss. Women, after having an abortion, have felt in a way quite similar to women who have suffered a miscarriage of a baby they have chosen to have. When life begins is not invited here. This is not support for those who are against the pro-choice position. I am not arguing for or against a woman’s legal right to choose. Again the right precedes the law; the law gives the guarantee that the right of the woman is protected and supported by the legal justice system, thus supported by the government bureaucracies,. thus a normal mainstream event.
Creating a social context (I did have to bite my tongue not to say matirx) where we honor a woman’s basic human right to choose, and where respecting and protecting a woman’s unalienable right to sole proprietorship over her body are sane reasonable to all rationally minded persons in our society, seems the only sane solution for what some see as dilemma while others see the choice between bearing the embryo-fetus-child and having an abortion as lacking in predicament, whether they are on the side of pro or con. But my question is this, and I feel that it is most important to present–do we think that a girl who might not be emotionally and psychologically fit to endure a pregnancy is able to an abortion?
If I am not mistaken, a pregnancy and a birth are both natural occurrences. I have not yet assumed that an abortion is also natural, unless that is what we are saying, that the natural flip-side of pregnancy and birth is abortion. I do not know if this is viable. Disputing the validity of abortion being a natural occurrence as are pregnancy and birth is not by necessity a pro or con argument. In the ways that biology and psychology are connected, interconnected, mutually influential, I am not so sure that abortion is a natural occurrence in the same as let us say getting pregnant is–even by artificial insemination, pregnancy is still more natural in the ways drawn herein. I am, though, a bit puzzled by anyone who claims that abortion must be made available to a young girl because we would be saving this girl emotional distress by doing so. Does anyone who puts forth this argument listen to what he is saying when he says this: abortion saves a girl the trauma of a pregnancy.
Legislation that sanctions a woman’s right to choose an abortion is put forth to ensure that it is safe, if it is chosen. The argument presented above, inferring that an abortion may or may not be as traumatic for a girl as a pregnancy is not a rebuttal for abortion, but one against what others see as a crucial point in their argument. The best argument for legislation to get behind a woman’s right to choose is to ensure a woman has a safe choice and not a horrible dilemma (safe and antiseptic have become motifs in the pro-choice argument).
The choice is between safe and unsafe abortion because abortion has been and will always remain an option for anyone so inclined. Dilemmas will always exist; problems can ensue. However, with the legal right to choose, abortion presumably will not be the nightmare it was before Roe versus Wade. And before Roe versus Wade, the options before a woman, likely a girl, were nightmarish. But then there were not enough lifeboats on the Titanic, and the dearth was felt by steerage. Parachutes and lifeboats, however, of whatever variety, have always been available for the rich.
If every woman is macrocosmic to the universe of being as I hold to be a priori true, then every galaxy of argument for or against the legal right becomes irrelevant. She is. Her choice is. What happens, happens for her and to her and to no one else. Is the embryo a someone? The fetus is what? Where does personhood begin is going to be a matter of faith for a while, so we are going to have clashing metaphysics for a while. I am not here to argue, as I have already asserted above, when life begins. I know there are cultures where a child has to undergo a ritual initiation into becoming a human being and before this his parents have the right of life and death over the thing the child is in the eyes of the culture. I am not here to justify or condemn cultural practices in the social context in which they have arisen, but there can be no allowance for any cultural practice or religious law that enforces misogyny here in the United States.
All the women on either side of the Pro-choice issue do not countermand a woman in any of her decisions. They do not outweigh her. If we could prove there was or was not a personhood present in the fetus, then what would we have to say, on either side of this issue? Are there not more than just two sides here. If we remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we again will realize that the working poor, the immigrant poor, the minority poor, the poor poor are not worthy of parachutes; parachutes are expensive, they cost a lot of money to make. But I am an old fashioned humanist that believes in a universal human nature that is not only worthy of protection but mandates our protection. We are obliged. Yes, humanity demands noblesse oblige from every human being toward every other human being. The simple separate woman facing this dilemma is everything in this; she is every thought, every choice, every fear, every emotional pang, every anything else she might feel. No one can feel for her; embryos cannot feel. What can the fetus feel? Does medicine tell us? All the arguments for or of the psychological effects of abortion are mute before her singular solitary irreducible voice.
Only she faces this; only she can choose. This seems simple enough to say, but remains difficult for us to believe. But actions do speak louder than words, although words are all we have to defend a woman’s right to choose which is every human’s right to choose.
Abortion is a woman’s parachute.